Rift remains between Wichita firefighters, department leadership

The icy relationship between City Hall and the city’s firefighters union has thawed, but only slightly, in the five months since a no-confidence vote led the union to call for the resignations of Fire Chief Ron Blackwell, Deputy Chief Ron Aaron and Division Chief Billy Wenzel.

“It’s a start,” said Matt Schulte, president of International Association of Fire Fighters Local 135 in Wichita.

“There’s got to be a start somewhere.”

The city spent the summer trying to strengthen communications with union members.

But the union says the efforts are not enough to bridge what union leaders call a huge credibility gap with the department’s administration, a gulf that exploded earlier this year when the union discovered mistakes in the department’s promotion testing process.

And it’s nowhere near enough for the union to back off its April demand for Blackwell, Aaron and Wenzel’s jobs, Schulte said.

“They’ve all earned their retirement, had good careers,” Schulte said. “Today, we’d still like to see a change in the leadership of the department.”

City Manager Robert Layton — who drew praise from the union for his willingness to attack the department’s issues — pledged continued cooperation to bridge the gap between Blackwell and his firefighters.

“After the vote last spring, we talked about what it all means,” he said. “We both agreed that we needed to get more input from the firefighters themselves.

“We must stay on top of the issues out there and how we react to them.”

Blackwell didn’t return a message seeking comment on the renewed resignation call.

On April 30, the firefighters union called for Blackwell, Aaron and Wenzel’s resignation after a survey conducted by the union showed 94 percent expressed no confidence in Blackwell’s leadership and 97 percent had no confidence in Aaron or Wenzel.

The union was upset about double-digit raises for administrative staff during the recession when some front-line emergency response units were taken out of service; errors in the in-house promotion testing process; administrative attempts to cut the number of daily on-duty staff members below contract limits; and an effort by administrators to unilaterally change the current contract, which expires at the end of next year.

The firefighters union censured Blackwell during its annual convention in July, citing the local chapter’s allegations against the chief.

The fire department has 440 employees, with about 360 union members. But the squabble has no impact on fire services, Layton and Schulte said.

“We still have a job to do,” Schulte said. “We do have to work with them.”

Improving communications

Layton and Blackwell trumpet a summer of work, centering on improved communications with rank-and-file firefighters, management training, the implementation of a voluntary grievance mediation step in the internal grievance process, in-person visits by Blackwell to every station and a video made by the chief that addresses firefighters’ concerns.

“I think we got to the point where our rank and file didn’t feel their grievances were being heard,” Layton said. “There were policies coming down and they didn’t understand the reason why. There were issues, whether they were equipment issues or others, where they expressed frustration and didn’t feel that was getting up the chain, so that was a problem. This has been really revealing to me, what the chief has heard in the stations, because it seems most of it does indeed hinge around that.”

“A couple of the big things for me in visiting with the troops had to do with communication and the need for more and better communication, more opportunities for some input as it relates to what the department is doing and how we’re doing it,” Blackwell said. “We’re working through that.”

The message from Schulte is different: The department’s administration has lost credibility with union members, and it’s going to take more than a video and station visits to fix it.

Credibility is rebuilt in person, not through a video and not without detailed proposals for reform, Schulte said.

“It’s good the chief tried to convey his members were important,” he said. “I wish he would have done that when he was at the station. The video is good, but it’s always received better face to face when a person says they believe in you. The membership didn’t get that from the chief in his station visits.”

The two sides have struggled with contract issues for years, Layton said. He and previous union administration thought they had an agreement to work through problems at the negotiation table, and avoid public displays like the no-confidence vote.

That changed when Schulte and the current union administration took over in December 2011, the city manager said.

“It created the perfect storm, and the union for whatever reasons decided to bring it to a head,” Layton said.

Promotion testing

Last November, promotion testing for battalion chief positions went terribly awry, Schulte said.

“We had a member indicate to us that his score was wrong, and upon further investigation we found that six of the 11 scores were wrong in the testing,” he said.

“That is the straw that broke the camel’s back for us. You have the speculation of an unfair playing field, the possibility of manipulating the process. It’s terrible for morale. That’s why we had the vote.”

Layton and Schulte agreed that the two sides are working on having a third party operate the promotions testing process now handled internally. Schulte expressed frustration with the lack of details available on how a third-party system would work, with another promotion testing series due for battalion chiefs by the end of the year.

The third party is fine with Blackwell, the chief said.

“I don’t like being in the testing business,” the chief said.

“We definitely have to have people trusting the system,” Layton said. “And there are definitely enough people raising questions about it now.”

One big step in the right direction, Schulte said, came with the promotion of Tammy Snow earlier this month to deputy fire chief. During the no-confidence vote in April, Snow’s approval ratings with the rank and file were so high it became a “confidence vote,” Schulte said.

“We believe it’s a new day for the Wichita Fire Department,” Schulte said. “There’s some credibility for the promotional system that way. We can only hope it relieves some of the tension between the fire administration and its employees.”

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